Saturday, August 20, 2011

Complicating Heidegger and Architecture

I am thinking about two articles in the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 69 no. 1, "Complicating Heidegger and the Truth of Architecture," by Travis T. Anderson, and "The 'Urban Photogenie' of Architainment" by Jennifer Burris.  The two articles go in very different directions but in interesting ways.  Anderson takes us through the development of Heidegger's ideas of architecture, beginning with Being and Time, going through "The Origins of the Work of Art" and ending with the period of Building, Dwelling, Thinking."  The architectural hero of the story is Frank Gehry, who, Anderson thinks, "demonstrates that architecture presents the truth and beauty of the elemental and natural as foundational to our being and our world." (78) Anderson had already spoken of Frank Lloyd Wright as fitting Heidegger's philosophy of architecture in that it reveals "the beauty and truth of brick, stone, concrete, wood, and glass" and also the beauty and truth of the landscape in which it is situated.  Gehry's buildings, he thinks, does something similar with respect to "the sheen of titanium, the plasticity of cement, the translucency of glass, the strength of steel, and the flexibility of chain-link."  He even thinks that Gehry goes further than Wright by awakening "our imagination to the organic, irregular, and fluctuating forms of nature as a living, evolving life-world" and also by complicating the relations between architecture and sculpture.  What draws me to contrast Anderson to Burris is when he says "unlike representational arts, works of architecture attune us to the truths and beauty of the elemental itself, completely undiluted by an image that would divert our attention from the matter out of which it is composed." (78)  Burris by contrast talks about the New American Urbanism, a movement that began in the 1990s and consisted of "film-set architecture modeled on the cinematic vision of pre-sprawl America"  using architectural facades using "unnecessary awnings and front porches meant to evoke the idealized topography of early twentieth-century small-town America." (96)  Celebration is a Disney-developed town in this tradition.  New American Urbanism seems like the opposite of Heideggerian architecture:  it is much more concerned with images that are precisely intended to divert our attention from the matter.  In a way, this is just the old debate between modernism and postmodernism, except in this case Gehry is associated with modernism (whereas he is usually associated with deconstructivism...but then deconstructivism is a kind of modernist response to postmodernism).  Burris ends her article with a discussion of three photographers who are responding to, or are inspired by, New American Urbanism, i.e. Peter Granser, Andreas Gefeller and Thomas Demand.  Although I agree with the critics of the New American Urbanism (that it is superficial and obsessed with commodity consumption) I also feel ambiguous towards it, and on two fronts.  First, I find myself enjoying the artificial Disneyland atmosphere of Santana Row, our own version of New Urbanist pastiche in San Jose.  Sometimes I tell myself that the artificial old-time small-town streets are almost as good as the real thing:  it is just nice to sit in front of a fake French cafe and watch people strolling by. (Sure this is false consciousness...but)  Second, I really like the New American Urbanist-influenced photography in which, as Burris says "The theatrical lighting and smooth lines recast this world as an eerily perfect stage set, primed for the projection of an individual's imagined story." (98)  Of course, the photography is commenting on our surface-oriented world (and thus it is not exactly promoting it):  but I cannot deny that it looks good, interesting, and right, much like the photography-based work of Palo Alto artist Kathryn Dunlevie. Also, returning to Wright and Gehry, isn't there something stage-set-like about their architecture too? 

How does this related to the aesthetics of everyday life?  First, architecture creates the everyday insofar as it makes the world in which we live our everyday lives:  or at least it makes some sites of that world (since not all buildings are architecture.).   Of course it doesn't create the everyday alone:  photography helps (as do many other things).   Second, the relationship between aesthetics of nature and aesthetics of the everyday is stressed by architecture:  we appreciate the stone in Wright's building as enhanced through transformation into something useful, hence everyday. Here, nature is appreciated, but so too the everyday.  Third, following Burris, the everyday transforms through history, for example in its relation to photography.  Burris writes "Beginning in the late 1960s, a strand of urban landscape photography seemed to translate [the] critical understanding of photography's indexicality [it is an objective imprint of the real] into the image's formal characteristics" (94) moving from street-level, humanist, social oriented photography of Cartier-Bresson to a "topographical approach" in which the urban landscape is deserted.  The new topographical photography was exemplified by Ed Ruscha, and in particular, his Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963).    In my forthcoming book (The Extraordinary in the Ordinary) I refer to Ruscha's work as exemplifying the transformation of the ordinariness of the ordinary into something extraordinary.  What I am thinking now is that this is a matter of a transformation of the constitution of the everyday and of everyday aesthetics over time:  Ruscha's move being one that gives us a new appreciation of the everyday different from that of Cartier-Bresson, but like that of (as Burris observes) Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas.  One might speak of an evolving field in which there are new competing positions, a new field of possibilities, for example the competing pulls (in my own consciousness) between the Heideggerian and the postmodernist photographers cited by Burris.  Earlier I had defended Cartier-Bresson against criticisms that he took us away from the aesthetics of everyday life:  but now I think that the aesthetics of everyday life moves on and that Cartier-Bresson, although a wonderful photographer, represents, as is inevitable, a stage, but not statically, but rather as a position in the evolving chessboard, still there, but now in opposition to the newer topographical photographers.  (I am not endorsing here Burris's typology or photography which seems simplistic if intended to cover the history of photography as a whole...but that's not relevant here.)